A friend of mine recently returned to church after many years. He was raised in a religious household, but like many of us in our youth gave over to the temptations of life and strayed from his roots. Decades passed, mistakes were made and life went on until for reasons known only to him and God, he decided to again accept Christ in his heart and change his life.
What shocked him most was how people around him reacted when the conversion occurred. Surprisingly, most of his “worldly” friends accepted the change without much thought. To them he was a milder, gentler version of the same person they already respected. His re-acceptance of Christ didn’t phase them the least. On the other hand, however, many of the cchurch folks in his small community seemed to have a hard time accepting that his life had really changed. Certainly not all, but more than a few self proclaimed Christians questioned his reasons for returning to the church and remained critical of the life he had previously lived.
As I reflect upon his story, I am reminded of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch. Paul’s message of Christ the Savior was so well received by the people the entire city turned out to hear it. The religious officials seeing the large crowds became jealous and turned to the devout women and the leading men to stir dissention against Paul and Barnabas, driving them from the city. However, rather than get discouraged, the Book of Acts tells us they “shook off the dust of their feet in protest…and were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”
This seemingly outdated custom of shaking off the dust plays a prominent role throughout the Bible and remains relevant today. The Scriptures are chocked full of verses that instruct God’s people to shake the dust off their feet. In fact, in biblical times there was no stronger sign of disapproval than to shake the dust off one’s feet. Throughout the Gospels for example, Jesus instructs the disciples to shake the dust of any house or city that did not readily receive them. Shaking the dust off served two distinct purposes: the first was to send a signal to the household or city who didn’t receive the message that the failure wasn’t one of the messenger, but rather a failure of the receivers; and the second purpose was for the disciples so they would take care to leave all traces of the failure or criticism behind and press onward with the message of Christ. This is exactly what Paul and Barnabas did.
Ironically, Paul and Barnabas were delivering the true word of God to the religious people of the day and the insurrection against that word was led by the devout women and leading men. Paul and Barnabas were not discouraged however. Instead, Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet and turned their attention to the Gentiles. Thus, the word of God was spread throughout the earth.
The message here is clear: We are all, the long time, newly and unconverted, imperfect vessels of Christ covered by grace. Our relationship with Christ is unique to us and as disciples we are charged with delivering the message of Christ through our own experiences. Our path to God, however long and winding and regardless of our failures, is a testament to that grace and a beacon for the Gentiles among us. No one can take that from us, but us–reminding us to embrace our failures, shake off the dust of criticism and be filled with joy and the Holy Spirit!